Oh the Dangers of Daycare!

I grew up being taught that daycare was the place where selfish moms go to abandon their children. I thought children who were in daycare were miserable, deprived, and stunted. And the same went for preschool as well. I believed that being carefully tended by a state at home mom was the only right option, the only wan to turn out healthy and well-adjusted children, and the only godly option.

And then I reached a point where I had no option but to send my daughter to daycare. I was nervous. I was afraid. I was sure she would hate me for abandoning her, leaving her in the keeping of uncaring strangers. I was afraid that I was somehow ruining her by putting her in daycare. It’s been a couple years since then, and my view of daycare could hardly have changed more completely.

Growing up, when I heard about things like Head Start, which give lower income children a leg up by giving them the chance to attend preschool, they didn’t make sense to me. Being cared for by a stay at home mom, I believed, was always best. How would abandoning a child to the care of strangers for a good part of each day help that child? Of course, I extended these same ideas to school as well, believing that homeschooling was always the best and only right option, and that sending your child away to school was not only second best but also actively harmful.

And then I put my daughter in daycare. It took her a bit to adjust – she was used to only ever being with me, after all – but adjust she did. And more than that. She loved daycare. She absolutely thrived. She was excited to see her friends and teachers each time I dropped her off. She gained a sense of confidence and independence. She learned to work with other children, and learned that she could trust and learn from other adults.

I was completely taken aback. I had not expected this! I had thought that I risked ruining my daughter by putting her in daycare, but what I actually found was that daycare only did her good!

My fears that she would resent me for “abandoning” her were unconfirmed. My fears that she would prefer her teachers to me were unfounded. My fears that her teachers were just there to make a paycheck and wouldn’t really care about my child were misguided.

It took me a long time to stop feeling guilty about having my daughter in daycare, and as I’ve written, I sometimes do still feel that guilt. But I’ve gotten to the point where I can go to work and not worry constantly about my daughter, not constantly feel the fact that she’s not by my side, and not feel guilty that I’m not with her. And you know what? Dads don’t generally constantly feel guilty for leaving their children when they go to work. So, why should moms?

One thing I’ve learned since growing up is that our current stay-at-home mom setup is actually in many ways an innovation of the last few hundred years. In Europe five hundred years ago, families often contained additional relatives, like grandparents and aunts or uncles, and children were often widely spread apart, sometimes with large gaps in age (the result of child mortality). Sometimes there were stepparents (not uncommon given the life expectancy), and there were often servants or apprentices or other labors as well. Mothers were highly integrated into what was then generally a household economy, a family farm or a shop for instance. Children fit into everyday life in an organic way, watched by older siblings, other relatives, and servants in addition to their mothers. Our current system with nuclear families and isolated suburban houses and only a few children closely spaced together? That’s new. That doesn’t mean the stay-at-home mom some how illegitimate; rather, it simply means that we shouldn’t assume that it’s some sort of long-term universal when it quite simply isn’t. The idea that small children are supposed to be watched exclusively by their mothers or else end up maladjusted is new.

The way I see it, what’s important is that the child is getting good quality care, wherever that might be – and what works best will vary by family even as families’ needs vary. For some families it may mean a stay-at-home parent, for others it may mean the children stay with a grandmother or other relative, and for others it may mean daycare.

And of course, not every daycare is identical or offers the same quality. Choosing a daycare is a task to be undertaken with care – and that is just what I did when I first started shopping for daycares for my daughter. What I love about the daycare we chose is that I truly feel like it’s a sort of second home. I trust the men and women who work there, and I feel totally comfortable around them – and so does my daughter. The daycare shares my child-rearing style and my views on children in general. The teachers don’t just play referee, they also engage the children in learning and sensory activities. And my daughter always seems to come home covered in paint.

I think my own particular fears of daycare were based in part on the ideology taught by the homeschooling circles in which I was raised. For example, I was afraid of having my daughter learn from other adults. I only wanted her to learn from me, and from my husband. The idea of her coming home having learned the days of the week from daycare, for instance, scared me. I wanted to teacher all those things, and only me. I realized over time that this fear – and this desire – are irrational. I now see it as a good thing for my daughter to have a variety of teachers and a variety of role models, and to have a social circle that is not wholly circumscribed by her family.

Regardless, becoming comfortable having my daughter in daycare, after being taught that daycare meant her ruin, has helped to acclimate me to the idea of putting her in school when the time comes. After all, I’m now okay with her having other teachers and okay with her having friends who aren’t simply the children of my friends – and I’ve seen that my daughter grow in confidence and independence and continue to thrive even without me constantly at her side. And you know what? She still throws her arms around my neck and says “I love you mommy.”

#makehomeschoolsafe and Michigan's HB 4498
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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Aaron

    I’m proud to have my kids in day care. My own personal opinion is that it’s better for the kids, over all. It leads to smarter and more socialized kids. This is backed up, to some extent, by the literature. I’ve no doubts that my kids (5 mo and almost 4 yr) get more stimulation, more socialization, more creative play than they would at home with my or my wife. Certainly, some stay at home parents do a great job- but having seen everything my kids have done in the infant, toddler, and pre-school rooms of the day care they’ve gone to I just know they would have never got anything near that at home with one of us.

    Obviously, this depends on the quality of the daycare program and its teachers. I know some daycares where the kids sit around watching TV all day. I also know abuse can happen, and worse. It’s also important to remember that religious day cares are subject to little or none of the regulatory scrutiny that secular day cares are.

    Funny how we arrive at different opinions on this stuff. For me, the selfish thing would be to keep my kids at home with me because I love them and love watching them grow and learn, even knowing they’d be better off in the long run in day care and pre-school. I worked at home when my first son was born, and he stayed at home with me for three days a week, until I was laid off when he was 5 months old. I loved that time, and really miss not having it with our second child. I miss the 9-10 AM after-bottle nap, cuddled up with the baby, a Bopy, and a book. Our second has grown so much faster without the ability to watch him learn all the tiny things a baby does.

    It’s not easy in someways, especially in pre-school. That’s when our first kid started coming home with the ideas and stories of other children. There’s a certain bittersweet joy, a bit of mono-no-aware, when that starts to happen. You know you are no longer the primary input, and have to learn to let them become who they will. It’ll happen at 3-4 in pre-school or 5-6 in kindergarten- but it’ll happen no matter what. *sigh*

  • ScottInOH

    This is an important issue that a lot of people face, whether they are religious or not; I’m glad you raised it. I want to point out how it is also linked to some of the other discussions we have had, including those on creationism and abortion. You write:

    I believed that being carefully tended by a stay at home mom was the only right option, the only way to turn out healthy and well-adjusted children, and the only godly option.

    For the conservative Christian, the last point is the one that really matters. They believe that is true, and because of that, they seek evidence that supports more secular arguments (e.g., those concerning how well your kids will do in school, what their health will be like, etc.). They start with their interpretation of the holy writ, and they try to justify their position with language that doesn’t sound religious. When they are right, it’s only by accident. It’s a mockery of logic and honesty.
    (Yes, I’m a little stressed–why do you ask?!?!)

  • Arakasi

    My son went into daycare at about 4-5 months, and it was hard. (BTW: Dads also sometimes feel guilty about dropping them off and walking away – I know that from personal experience) We talked to his caregiver, and she told us that he would cry for about 5 minutes after we walked out the door and then be fine, but we never quite believed her.

    Then, on one of the first days I dropped him off by myself, I steeled myself to walk away from him while he was still crying. I did, and walked out the door. Halfway down the hall, I remembered that I hadn’t signed the sign-in sheet, so I turned to go back into the room. I paused for a moment to look through the window in the door to see that he had crawled over to the shelf that held the toys, had pulled himself up, and was pulling toys down and handing them to an accomplice. I had been gone for less than a minute.

    I stopped feeling guilty after that.

    • RQ

      An accomplice. Tee hee. That’s how I prefer to think of all their friends.
      But yes, I had to see it for myself as well before I could stop feeling guilty about leaving my son in daycare for a whole day… Since then I’ve learned that for children, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is a very applicable phrase – they’re fine without you, until you walk in the door after a couple of hours away. I know my parents have had a hard time convincing me that they really DID have a great time, because the kids were all in tears on our return. I suspect emotional manipulation on their part (the kids, I mean). ;)

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this post! This is something moms everywhere, ESPECIALLY conservative Christian moms, need to hear.

    You made an excellent point about needing to discover what’s right for every family. When I was little, my parents worked different shifts, so they split childcare duties and I was raised just about 50/50 by each of them. I LOVED it. Loved. It. I adored the special time I got with each parent.

    I know a little girl whose parents work, and she is cared for about half the time by her grandparents. She is one of the most happy and well-adjusted kids I know.

    The one caveat I would give to this article is that most kids will be fine in daycare, but there may be a few that just aren’t well-suited for it personality-wise. I was one such kid. I was put in preschool at 4 and then went to public school, and it still took many years before I could fully adjust to being away from home. So, some kids are different, and parents should pay attention to that. But the point is, the parents should make the decision based on their kid’s personality, not based on what other people TELL them their kid’s personality “must” be. And probably most kids will be fine with whatever is chosen.

    • Rosa

      And, contrariwise, some parent-child pairs do better not being home together.

      My son & I have very similar brains, both with ADHD diagnoses, and his time in daycare and now school has been EXCELLENT for his ability to organize, remember, and practice executive functions. Way better than how things are around here when it’s just us :) I can consciously teach that stuff, mostly, but it’s so hard for me to get back on track after being derailed and so hard for him not to derail everyone around him, it’s really good for him to be in more structured environments part of the time.

  • http://AztecQueen2000.blogspot.com AztecQueen2000

    Again, it goes back to choices. If your daycare is in a bright, sunny house with a big backyard full of ducks and geese, run by a woman who does it purely out of a love for small children (yes, this was the daycare I went to as a child–they do exist), then it’s a wonderful experience. If however, your only options are places with a high child-adult ratio (and I consider 1:10 on the high side for children still in diapers), in some basement where they can’t handle a kid who cries (my child’s experience), then don’t use it.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      This is one of the reasons you should DEFINITELY opt for a daycare that has to follow state regulations. In my state, the highest ratio allowed for children in diapers is 1/4. Once they’re potty training it can be 1/5. I think preschool has a bit of a higher ratio, maybe 1/7? Not completely sure. I do have a friend who lives in a state where the highest ratio for children in diapers is 1/3. This is one of the reasons I think having regulations is a good thing! It helps cut down on the potential for abuse.

      And actually, when I was daycare shopping, this one place had a low ceiling and felt like a cave. It was just one room, and that’s where the kids spent all their time. That was an automatic reject. As for handling a kid who cries, that’s one reason I think asking about child rearing philosophies, etc, is important. In my case, I found a daycare that parents, well, the way I parent. And that’s important to me – and a BIG part of why I chose that daycare.

      I feel lucky that I was able to exercise choice in choosing a daycare. I would imagine that many lower income women don’t have that luxury and have to take what they can get. This is one reason I think daycare should be government subsidized, like in most European countries.

      • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

        Here in Sweden daycare is subsidized and mainly run by the city but there are also private but government funded choices. Private daycare where the parents pay all the costs must be rare or non-existing, I have never heard of it. We do not have 1/4 ratios anywhere though but of course even very rich people pay a fraction of the cost of daycare so in a sense we get what we pay for… I think that our daycare is good, but not for young children. We cannot put a child in daycare before 1 year but we have paid parental leave which lasts over 400 days so everyone can stay home with their child until it is at least one year old and most people will opt for some unpaid days and I think most children do not start daycare before 1.5 years of age. I am pregnant now and I hope that we will manage to last financially until the child is 2 before daycare which I think is a pretty good age although perhaps 3 is ideal in my view. I am glad we can have it both, both stay home for a period and then use daycare to be able to work later on. I do not have to become a stay at home mom to be with my child, I can both spend time with my baby when it is young and keep my job and go back after the parental leave.

  • http://tanitisis.wordpress.com Tanit-Isis

    A great day-care is a very precious thing. While it was really important to me to be home when my babies were very young—I was able to give each of them a year, more or less, and I have absolutely no regrets about that time—it was pretty obvious, especially with my older daughter, that she was a good “fit” for daycare—nothing made her happier than being around other people, especially other kids, in a busy and stimulating environment. That being said, not every day-care we’ve encountered was stellar, and when you’re on a limited budget, trying to find a good, affordable spot in a timely manner is one of the most stressful things I’ve ever had to do as a parent.

    My husband’s family comes from a lower economic bracket and (maybe more importantly) not a standard WASP origin, and I don’t think any of the women in that family have *ever* been stay-at-home moms. My MIL stayed with her grandparents while her mother worked at road construction and other jobs (in the 50s and 60s) and her grandmother, when younger, had worked as a teacher, often in another province, sometimes leaving her children for six months at a time. They relied on a network of extended family, not to mention large families, to make it work, but make it work they did. I will say, these weren’t always ideal situations—my MIL actually spent several years in an orphanage after her grandmother died—but they were a reality for a *lot* of people, even back in the “golden age” of the nuclear family.

  • Rosa

    What I think is funny is that the same people who tell us we should have more kids because it’s bad for kids to be alone, were the ones who were all “Why even have a baby if you’re going to have someone else raise it?” when my son was in daycare.

  • Nurse Bee

    Interestingly enough, my middle sister was the only one who never experienced daycare (my mom continued working until she had her and went back to work part-time when my youngest sister was a toddler) is the one who ended up no longer a Christian.

    We have been fortunate to have excellent childcare. At first I had a friend watch my older daughter and when she could no longer do it, we had an acquaintance who runs an in-home daycare. I was always glad to be able to say “babysitter” instead of “daycare” when we had our prior arrangement, but really what we have now is so much better for all of us.

  • Rilian

    I believe that school is harmful. Not necessarily all schools, but the typical kind that most people in USA go to these days definitely is. Daycare probably isn’t harmful, since you have more freedom, since your mind isn’t being raped. Daycare of course can still be harmful if the teacher is abusive or if the other kids are abusive. But with school, it’s the system itself that is abusive, and no matter what good intentions a teacher in that system has, they can’t get around the harm it inflicts.

    BTW, I went to daycare for 4 and a half years before starting school. I liked daycare. I hated school.

  • Rilian

    But also, I made the vast majority of my friends at home on the playground. If you never have any friends outside of school, I suspect you’re not doing life optimally.

  • Anat

    Rilian, most kids play outside of school with kids they met at school. Both the playground and the school serve the same kids usually – those who live nearby. But then, if summer breaks represent how socializing would work in the absence of schools then I’d say at least in my area I don’t think it works much. So many times when my daughter was younger I took her to the playground to find it empty, or with only a few kids much younger or (rarely) much older. Meeting kids outside of organized activities appears to be less common than it was a generation ago.

  • prekprofessional

    Daycare can be a good thing for parents but you have to make sure that you send your child to a quality program. I just left a job at a center that was owned by a very greedy owner. We always had the legal maximum number of children crammed into each room. I had eleven wild and crazy children in my room who were either a few months from turning three or they were very young three year old’s. Half the children were from single parent homes. The other half of the children were either ADHD, ADD, ODD, or they had some type of Asperger/Autism spectrum disorder. It was chaos. I could not keep my kids safe because the children were always fighting with one another in my small, crowded classroom. I could not potty train properly because I had one toilet that was down a little hall where I couldn’t supervise the children properly. It was awful. My children would run out the classroom door, down the hall, out the poorly designed exit door, and out into the parking lot. Since I worked by myself, I would have to run out the classroom after the escaping child and I’d have to grab him before he turned the knob on the exit door. In the meantime, the other children would wander out into the hall after me since I was leaving them unattended. The owner said she couldn’t put any latches or security devices on the exit door since it was a fire escape. Should a two year old be allowed to head out the exit door to the parking lot by themselves? I think not. When I stuck a disposable diaper in the door and pulled it closed so that the exit door would jam, I got in trouble for “blocking a fire escape.” The fire escape wasn’t blocked. An adult would just pull or push really hard and the door would open and the disposable diaper would fall out. I was just trying to keep the children from running out of my room and out into the parking lot. The soccor moms on cell phones would come busting through that parking lot so fast. One of my children almost got hit by a car. My stress level was off the charts so I quit without notice. I could not keep those children safe because I had too many children in my care, the children that I did have were all special needs, and the building design was not adequate to keep my children safe. Do you know that this daycare advertised a half-day preschool program for only $30.00 a week for an 8-12:00Noon program? The program was offered for five days a week and included snack and lunch. Talking about cheap! You get what you pay for!!!